“It’s clear that the modern canola industry in Canada is really a direct result of biotechnology. Without the critical development that took place in the 1990s and the early 2000s, the canola industry as we know it today simply could not have existed in Canada,” said Delage in his address to the Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference (ABIC) in Calgary earlier this month.
The introduction of GM and hybrid canola has helped double canola acreage over the past 20 years, with almost 98 per cent now seeded to GM crops. Yields have followed suit. Alberta canola yields averaged 39.5 bu./ac. in 2011, a 12 bu./ac. increase over 2001.
Delage, who runs a 21,000-acre operation near Indian Head, Sask., has seen even better results.
“Much of it has been driven by fertility and breeding. Our target yield is 60 bu./ac. this past year, and our five-year average is around 53 bu./ac. Right now, with around 75 per cent of our canola harvested, we’re around 67 bu./ac. These yields continue to rise.”
Delage credits two major breakthroughs for increasing canola production on his farm. The first was the introduction of herbicide-tolerant systems in 1995. Delage said that before that, it was difficult to grow canola, because there was no broad-spectrum weed control.
The same technology allowed the adoption of minimum tillage, Delage said.
“If there’s one crop in Canada that really benefited from minimum till, it was canola,” he said. “This herbicide-tolerant system really allowed for minimum till to find a stronghold in canola production. It allowed for many more acres to be seeded, higher yields, and quick establishment of the crop.”
The second breakthrough came several years later with the development of hybrid crops.
“This was a quantum leap, because it took an open-pollinated crop into a whole new era,” said Delage. “From one day to the next essentially, you were able to jump yields 25 to 30 per cent.”
With the increase in yields has come an increase in marketing opportunities as well. Canadian crushing capacity has tripled over the past decade, while canola oil exports have increased over five times over 10 years.
“That means we have two legs to stand on as producers,” Delage said. “As a producer, I now have two ways of marketing my canola, both of which can be very advantageous. We have a domestic crushing industry, which we sell to directly, but we also have this export market.”
Without biotechnology, this growth would not have been possible, says Delage.
“No one was going to invest in these crushing plants unless they were sure of supply, and the only way that supply came to market was through the development of hybrids.”
Delage believes that growers would not have so readily adopted the technology if there hadn’t been a profit to be made with it.
“Profit really is the support for taking risks,” he said. “Farmers have adopted this technology very, very quickly because it was very obvious from the beginning that there was a strong economic incentive to do so.”
More with less
Biotechnology has also changed the way Delage views the future of his operation. “We believe in order for us to be fully competitive, we’re going to have to do more with less. We’re going to have to keep driving down our unit cost of production in order to be successful long term. That’s where biotechnology has had a huge impact in terms of our on-farm business.”
And as new varieties are developed disease tolerance, higher oil content, improved oil profile and stress tolerance, yields, and profits will only continue to rise, Delage said.
“I see what’s happening with some of these breeding organizations, and I have all the confidence in the world that we’re going to be talking about 70- to 80-bushel canola yields over the next 20 years.”
That future is within reach for Delage. Some of this year’s fields have already averaged over 70 bu./ac., and harvest isn’t over on his farm.
“These are hybrids that are already commercially in production and in the field, and have been for a year,” said Delage. “It’s not something that’s somewhere off in the distance. It’s not something that we’re hoping for. This stuff is here, or just around the corner.”